Russell Marshall’s Column

‘Restructuring debacle’ spells danger for NZ

By Russell Marshall                                                              

For most of our modern history most of what government agencies have done has varied little from one government to another, irrespective of political party.

Sometimes officials could see that change was needed but ministers, worried about political backlash, would delay or refuse, as happened for quite long periods in both Education and Health portfolios.

Mostly, however, ministers apparently accepted recommendations without question and acted on them….until recentlyA year or two ago, a retired senior civil servant suggested to me that a sea change in the minister/officials relationship began to take place when younger, urban educated MPs began to be ministers in the 1970s and 1980s culminating, he believed, in the 1984 Cabinet.

The historical willingness of ministers to accept departmental advice began to be challenged.

The significant exception was Treasury where Milton Friedman’s ideology held sway and captured key ministers, combining to bring about a mixed bag of radical change, by no means all of it for the better.

One of the less remarked major Education changes of 1989 was the dynamic of the change in administrative structure.

The central administration became significantly deprofessionalised. Nobody from the three top levels of the old Education Department survived. Pol Pot style, much learned in the past was abandoned, sometimes with damaging consequences, often having to be relearned.


Two decades on, the New Right influence has lost credibility and Treasury’s role has largely returned to what it should be, but the willingness of some ministers to ignore important advice from their officials is still with us.

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) restructuring debacle there is also more than a whiff of the old canard of Provider Capture, ie officials/teachers/diplomats cannot be trusted to make change because of their own vested interest.

It is still apparently believed by some that only outsiders can make the ‘necessary’ reforms. That would bring a real risk that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be de-professionalised, with potentially disastrous effects on our ability to foot it in the world.

Footnote: I read somewhere recently that Prime Minister John Key does an annual Performance Review of his ministers, which is a commendable and might usefully be adopted by all party leaders for all their MPs. I am however concerned by the lack of some kind of collective accountability, especially given the cavalier way in which these days some decisions are made and announced before or without parliamentary scrutiny.

Is there something missing from our country’s governance structure? Do we need some sort of external layer of examination of government decisions before they are enacted?  None of the English speaking countries culturally closest to us have unicameral systems as we do but there would be little support for a return to an Upper House in this country. Nevertheless, a public debate on some kind of monitoring and right of review might be worth having.